One of the world's best producers interviewed ahead of his three London dates.
It’s hard to reconcile one of the foremost exponents of astral travelling hip-hop with the name Steve. Granted he’s actually Steven, Steven Ellison, but it’s really his alter ego you need to know which is, of course, Flying Lotus. If his stage name conjures up something of an air of mystery, of the spiritual, the natural world or maybe just an arcade game character, these things are all valid. From his LA laboratory he’s followed 2007’s seismic Warp debut ‘Los Angeles’ with ‘Cosmogramma’, a rich and immersive piece of work demonstrating a level of musical maturity that doesn’t often surface after just two and a half albums, much less by the age of 26.
So, what do you call it? How about cosmic hip-hop? Remove the musical connotations for a minute and think more of an attitude and you’re getting somewhere near. Take cosmic to mean open ended, full of possibility and read hip-hop as a kind of cut and paste toolbox, an aesthetic rather than a genre. Furthermore Flying Lotus’ music manages the best possible balance between being deeply personal and free enough of overarching meaning to escape, to be creatively re-interpreted by those on the receiving end of its transmission.
Cosmogramma makes a significant contribution to the field of instrumental hip-hop. He’s up there with the greats; with Madlib, Dilla, Shadow and Dabrye to name a few, and yes there are faint traces of all those people in the tapestry of his sound but make no mistake this music stands alone, and sounds like nothing or no one else.
Particularly significant on this album is his move towards live instrumentation, a common enough idea for the electronic musician on the Difficult Second Album, you might say. Ellison however exercises such a lightness of touch in the way he achieves it on this LP that the result isn’t a clash between the organic and the electronic but a case of one enriching the other in a series of mesmerising, wild combinations.
The contributions of Ravi Coltrane, FlyLo’s cousin and the son of John, and Sa-Ra bass player Thundercat are particularly significant. Both are renowned for their virtuosity, and their input contributes to some tracks on the LP reaching out towards something that is more discernibly ‘jazz’ than Ellison’s previous work but the mastery is in the way the recordings are balanced within the mix, this as he explains below, was one of his toughest challenges.
To say his new album ‘Cosmogramma’ restored my faith in electronic music would be wrong – that faith is constantly affirmed by the kaleidoscopic range of new music out there – but speaking to Ellis and listening to the album has offered up a different kind of faith to consider. Not religion so much as something purely spiritual; faith in the positive power of music as a process, a chain of creativity, inspiration and transformation.
Discussing Brainfeeder with Ellison, the LA label collective that includes Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer, Ras G also gave me a little more faith in the future of the music industry, where artists get more control over their own destinies. Brainfeeder artists set a good example by being intimately involved at every stage of their craft, from production of course, but through to videos, artwork, packaging and distribution. Granted Flying Lotus is on Warp but as a unit they strengthen the image of a new kind of artist who doesn’t need to rely on the old industry framework to thrive.
If all that sounds a little ‘out there’, then Ellis is OK with that. He’s made no secret on this album that he’s channelling forces from the work of his aunt Alice Contrane, well known for her deeply held spiritual beliefs. In conversation he paints a resolutely contemporary picture of the artist as receiver and transmitter; he’s channelling signals from science, films and video games, from jazz, Alice Cotrane, his Brainfeeder collective and translating them in to sound, and that’s no metaphysics, it’s really happening.
So without further delay, over to you, Steve:
The album gives more with each listen. Were you intentionally going for that kind of dense, multilayered sound?
Flying Lotus: Well I don’t want to do anything temporary, I want to make music that lasts forever. With this as well I felt that if I was going to make that record it needed to be now. While people were looking I had to make my most honest and personal record I could. There have been a lot of copycats but I knew if I made it as personal as possible then no one could copy it. It makes me feel kind of naked though (laughs).
What’s the copycat thing? Your sound is quite distinctive, but after a couple of releases people have had time to get used to it. Is it your sound specifically that people are copying or just a new style of music that’s emerged?
I don’t know man, maybe if you don’t hear it then it’s just me. I think it’s pretty obvious, I’m grateful people like what I’m doing but they don’t have to try and copy my last record.
Well they do say it’s the most sincere form of flattery?
It is for a little bit but then after while it’s like, you know, stop.
I’d like to establish a sense of place. More specifically LA, you’re famously from there but do you live downtown now or still out around Winnetka [his childhood home town]?
I’ve moved more in to the city now but it’s a very peaceful and quiet part of the greater LA area. I’m closer to everything.
Does where you live feed in to your music, has the move affected your sound, is the fast life of downtown LA reflected in the new album?
I’m glad you ask that man, I truly believe your surroundings influence your music. I don’t know how I feel about it living here now but it’s different to when I was out in the valley. It was so how out there you know? It would make me make music, just force me to create. I think your cold inspires you Brits, the heat inspires me. I can’t wait for summer to hit, it’s nearly here man.
On the subject of the Brits, you’re well know for connecting with certain artists over here. On the surface it isn’t one sound that binds you together, if you look at say you, and then Hudson Mohawke, Burial, Zomby then sonically you all differ, what is the common ground?
It’s not a sound, in the UK I really respect the fact that you don’t support wack shit, you don’t give that a pass. Producers and DJs have to be good to survive. I respect the intent behind it too, they don’t want to be cool it’s more like an addiction. The people you mentioned and people like Kode9, Joker, maybe Joker’s a little different actually. I think all these people have like a basement mentality. It’s like parties are cool but I really want to be in the lab. That’s my vibe, I connect to that.
That calls to mind another person I wanted to ask you about: Lil Wayne, he managers to be both very extrovert and then if you caught that documentary you saw a really introverted, introspective side to him. You’ve spoken a lot before about how much you respect his work, what is it that you see there?
My connection to Lil Wayne goes back and that’s why it’s interesting. I used to listen to him when he was a teenager. He was doing all these incredible things and I was going to school. I was in the Valley thinking there’s no scene for what I’m doing, I was cut off. But there was this kid out there making music and he was very successful. I was doing my shit but I didn’t really see a future for it, but I saw him doing his thing and being so successful and thought maybe there is something in this, maybe I’ll go home and write some beats right now. You also have to respect his work ethic.
Yeah, he makes his fair share of bad material, though. Because of the volume it’s almost like sifting for gold with Wayne’s music.
Yeah that’s true but I think a lot of it is pretty good actually, you just have to get in to his little universe, that’s what is interesting to me. You know this cat is rolling out of bed no matter where and doing his thing, I like that.
Jumping back to LA and Brainfeeder. What would you call it, a collective?
Collective is cool, we’re just like a small family of artists.
It feels like it’s something that has come together organically, and although it’s not like your the first art collective in history what you’re doing still feels quite progressive. Because you touch on all aspects of production, performance, broadcasting, packaging. Do you see it that way?
I do it for several reasons. The first one is those are the people I can relate to these days so I want them around (laughs). But also more than that I feel like these people are a sign of a new day where the artist is really involved in everything from the music to the videos to the packaging. I want the artists to truly shine and I see the emergence of a true artist in what we’re doing. I see people looking in this direction and I feel a responsibility to shed some light on real shit, shit that’s going to move people, inspire them.
Has the strength of this collective, or family helped all you individually to go further as artists do you think?
It’s been good, but I don’t know what it would be like without it to tell you the truth. One thing I can tell you is that we would be doing it anyway whether it had a name or not. We had a big meeting years ago, I don’t think any of us saw it as a reality back then but then we got our feet wet a little and it started to become a reality.
Let’s talk more about Cosmogramma. What are the big differences between this album and your previous work?
I leaned a lot of about life, about music, about myself as a human being, as a musician, a relative, a contributor to this movement. I questioned a lot of things and I felt I was right at the cusp of something and felt like I wanted to find a way to go really far within my own ideas. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just another weed-smoking beatmaker and let people know that we’re musicians.
You’ve touched on the musical edge to the album, it’s hard to avoid the mention of jazz with the new album, is that fair?
Yeah for sure, I’d say organic. I felt really, really moved by Alice’s (Coltrane) work and it really hit a place in my heart and I wanted to revisit that and bring that space to people.
Like most genres jazz is kind of a loose term, does the music feel to you like it fits somewhere in the narrative of jazz across the decades. Is there a path between what your making and what Alice made, or John Coltrane or anyone else?
I hope so, I’d hope that if John Coltrane were alive and he heard that record he would think, people are continuing this thing and not just trying to do what he did. I’d hope the same about Miles Davis, in his later days he was trying to dabble too. I’m not trying to say whether I am or not, I just hope I’m continuing the conversation.
Its not simply down to stylistic references, there are parts of the album that sound a bit like ‘jazz’ for sure, but like you say you’re not making music that sounds like John Coltrane or any of those others. Is it more of an energy, or set of forces that passes through your music, what exactly is continuing?
I think a lot of it is energy and mentality; a lot of it was done in one take for example. All the jazz stuff was done off the top and this album was done that way. People would come record and I would take their first pass at it. My cousin (Ravi Coltrane) was frustrated because I would use his first and second takes. I wanted to capture what people felt when they heard the music, and how they responded, capture that moment.
That’s interesting because that kind of challenged the classic image of the solo beat maker, face pressed up against a screen endlessly tweaking settings?
There’s definitely a lot of that too (Laughs)
You’ve done a great job of making the more organic material fit with the electronic layers, that’s something that can be really hard to achieve.
Thanks man, that was the hardest part, getting the textures to fit together.
When you were recording did you have to get deep in to that process to get the results you needed or was it still quite DIY?
The recording was still quite DIY, the mixing was the hard part. I had the tracks mixed in my head. New material would come along and I’d have to make it fit, take some of my stuff out, EQ bad recordings to make them fit, that kind of thing. It was a little headache but also a lot of fun, it was very cathartic. I was going through a lot in my life and having like this puzzle to put together was very helpful at the time.
A lot gets said about the spiritual side of work, what would you say is the power of music in that context?
I only hope that it can inspire something else. Like we were saying, continuing the conversation. I hope the album can inspire a film or a book, and eight more albums. To me that’s where it’s at. If my music can allow some 13-year-old kid to make something that will knock me out, that would be amazing.
You mentioned films there, I notice you’ve been dipping your toe in the water there (Ellison recently created a live score for the 1962 film Heaven and Earth) Do you want to do more for film?
For one I’d love to make a film project, but I’m actually working on some soundtrack stuff at the moment. It’s a dream come true for me. I’d really like to go in that direction for the next project instead of an album.
You hear the idea of music being ‘visual’ thrown around quite a lot, but for your sound it does seem to fit, it seems to conjure up a narrative of images for the listener. Is that intentional, do you hear music that way?
Definitely, I’m so glad to hear you say that, that’s the best compliment you could pay me. For my music to create that kind of experience for people, that’s what I want.
I think a lot of interesting things happen when musicians get inspired by films and literature for that matter, same for you?
Reading gets me going for sure, science stuff, cosmology really gets me going of course.
*Well cosmology is clearly a theme in the new album (he laughs). There are so many inspirational things happening in science at the moment. Like the Hadron Collider, black holes, dark matter all that kind of stuff. Maybe translating science into music helps us express the inexpressible with some of those things? *
They are all good things to think about, you have to realise that you are just an ant, you’re just one little piece in the big picture of existence. Everything is connected. I strongly believe sending out ripples that have effects elsewhere, it’s all about sending out the good ones!
Just as we’re about to get too deep I wanted to ask you about video games, I know you’re a fan but I’m interested in how it figures in your work. To me there are some elements in there not just the crunchy 8-bit sounds but melodic motifs in the new album that sound rooted in games?
I’ll say this I grew up in a house as an only child, but I did have my Nintendo and I spent a lot of time inside it. People ask me about it and I didn’t think about it when I was making the music. The same Nintendo melodies looped over and over and I’ll accept that they have soaked up somehow. I’m glad that people are seeing it though. Like the vocoder now has to be accepted its part of technology being absorbed into music, video games need to be too.
I know you’re a Streetfighter fan, who’s your favourite character?
I’m going to have to go with something classic like Ryu or Guile, maybe Ken.
I was going to try and say you could tell a lot about someone from their Streetfighter character but I’ve already decided against that.
Yeah, not enough characters man.